Volunteer Expands Pitt’s Reach, One Wikipedia Citation at a Time

Issue Date: 
August 22, 2016

Barbara Page has had a long love affair with libraries.

Barbara Page (Photo by Emily O'Donnell)Growing up in a remote and forested region of Michigan, Page remembers lamenting that the closest library was 100 miles away. When her town finally built one of its own, it was “like Christmas,” she said.

Fast forward several decades and Page now gets to spend as much time as she wants delving deeply into libraries, data, and research. She has landed her dream volunteer job: a Wikipedia Visiting Scholar at Pitt. 

Wikipedia is a free Internet encyclopedia created by volunteers who write pages, or articles, on topics of interest and provide sourcing information. Anyone with Internet access can write or edit a Wikipedia article. Visiting Scholars like Page have been identified by the Wiki Education Foundation as very active and experienced contributors to the online encyclopedia. As such, Page updates and creates Wikipedia articles based upon Pitt’s academic areas of expertise, and in doing so, expands the reach of the University’s research and collections.

Last year, the University Library System (ULS) was invited to participate in Wikipedia’s Visiting Scholar program, which was in its second year. Ed Galloway, head of Pitt’s Archives Service Center within the ULS, agreed, and Pitt and Page were eventually matched through the Wiki Education Foundation's Visiting Scholar's program. 

Pitt has given Page full access to ULS’s massive digital archives and collections. She volunteers 10 hours a week, writing articles on medicine and women’s health, and adding information from Pitt’s historical collections to relevant Wikipedia pages. She combs through medical journals and textbooks, pores over old photos and correspondence, and finds the necessary documents to edit, correct, and expand articles on the site. 

“When I study the documents that contain information I think can be helpful and truthful, I feel like I’m contributing to something much bigger than myself. I feel that what I write can really make a difference,” said Page, adding that she still uses books as reference tools, in addition to university databases, e-books, and special collections that may be inaccessible to the general public.

“The idea is to not only improve the content of Wikipedia, but to get users to notice the citations below the article, the references, and external links that could lead them back to a Pitt resource,” said ULS’s Galloway. The quality of Wikipedia is enriched, while some of ULS’s more than 1,000 archival collections may be exposed to new sets of eyes.

Page had already been editing and writing Wikipedia articles “as a hobby” for about 10 years before she came on board as a Visiting Scholar. Pitt has a second Wikipedian, senior Casey Monaghan, who works from the Pitt-Bradford campus on articles about Pittsburgh history.

Page’s first project at Pitt was to use Pitt’s Foster Hall Collection to expand the existing Wikipedia article on Pittsburgh native Stephen Foster. She added little-known facts, corrected others, and added an image from a Foster sketchbook kept in the Pitt archives. She also created articles on Foster’s father, William B. Foster, who founded Lawrenceville in 1814.

Page, a part-time nursing student at Community College of Allegheny County, then branched out to work on her favorite topic: women’s health. 

Using ULS’s reference books and medical journals, she made substantial contributions to the Wikipedia article on rape.

“I noticed [the page] lacked clinical content,” she said. “There was nothing about injuries, medications, treatment, what to expect when you go to a hospital, or what type of counseling is available. To me that seemed pretty important. It makes women more knowledgeable.”

Page’s articles on health topics have had more than 3.5 million views. 

“Even if just one rape victim reads that article and understands what’s going to happen to her at the hospital—it might make her feel as though she has some control over the process,” she said. 

To date, Page has created 43 articles and edited more than 230 others, on topics ranging from breastfeeding to bacteria. Wikipedia lists her among its top 5,000 active editors and Wikipedia’s seventh most active medical editor.

Recently, Galloway invited Page to campus to teach and train Pitt students, librarians, and staff about how best to enter information onto the online site. In addition, Page is planning a public Wikipedia editing session focused on Pittsburgh topics—it will be called the Pittsburgh Wikipedia Redd-Up-a-Thon and is scheduled for October during Open Access Week. The week of activities is sponsored by the ULS Scholarly Communication and Publishing Unit.